Earning our spurs in Tottenham

Three years after the area was hit by riots, McAslan is helping bring about change in Tottenham by setting up a design studio offering training and apprenticeships

Ready for action - the stylish new N17 Studio
Ready for action - the stylish new N17 Studio

You can't be a tourist if you want to understand an area’s specific social and urban context and be an effective agent of change. The challenges of regeneration in Tottenham after the riots, after years of neglect, and after the decline of local services, community support and the economic downturn, are certainly complex. But this complexity needs to be understood and debated on the ground and within a local community that has been badly served by the design profession in recent years.

The idea for John McAslan + Partners’ N17 Design Studio in Tottenham – named after the district’s postcode – came from an approach by Haringey Council’s chief executive Nick Walkley. He invited us to come up to Tottenham and assess the challenges facing the council in terms of urban regeneration. Our response was to embed ourselves in the High Road, coincidentally almost immediately opposite the police station where the 2011 riots first broke out. This idea was a natural progression of our previous experience in Haiti, Malawi and India. What better way to reach out and engage with the local community, and to establish credibility?

Making a start on opening day with the evolving model of Tottenham
Making a start on opening day with the evolving model of Tottenham

The N17 Design Studio has now opened for business, collaborating with the council to help generate employment and aid regeneration, and to create a forum for the education and future of young people through structured apprenticeships. We are working with the College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London in a 12-month pilot project to give local students the chance to learn key skills within an architectural practice with an international portfolio. The first five apprentices are now on board, being trained and mentored in a variety of core skills, including IT, marketing, business administration and visualisation. Future apprenticeships will also include training in model making and accountancy.

The studio is also committed to working with local schools, encouraging students to explore architecture and design. This summer the practice took a class from Northumberland Park Community School on a field trip around Tottenham, focusing on key areas in need of improvement. We provided Google SketchUp tutorials for students so they could work up their ideas, and workshops with model makers to help them produce professional massing models. The students created 16 proposal boards that were subsequently exhibited at McAslan’s William Road Gallery, and judged by Haringey Council leader Claire Kober. The winning entries, many proposing innovative and radical changes, will be on show in the new N17 Design Studio, and we want to display some of the winning work in the studio while the practice’s large-scale model of Tottenham is on display at MIPIM 2015 next March.

The practice will continue to work with young people and local schools throughout the pilot project, providing activities delivered by and for the local community. We are also helping with career skills mentoring, taking on three work-experience students in March. McAslan has also worked with the College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London and the Forest Recycling Project to provide work experience at N17 for construction students. It will continue to collaborate with Forest Recycling Project with a mural competition, where aspiring local artists will create an eye-catching community mural on the design studio’s external side wall as a striking local landmark.

  • JMP apprentices Daisy Ignatiou, Zehra Harrison, Rhasan Brunner, Sam Ray and Akbar Hossain with (centre back) JMP's Natasha Manzaroli and (right) council leader Claire Kober
    JMP apprentices Daisy Ignatiou, Zehra Harrison, Rhasan Brunner, Sam Ray and Akbar Hossain with (centre back) JMP's Natasha Manzaroli and (right) council leader Claire Kober
  • The apprentices get their first look at the N17 Studio under construction
    The apprentices get their first look at the N17 Studio under construction

The new venture provides McAslan with valuable opportunity to assess the area’s immediate need for regeneration. This is the kind of pragmatic engagement advocated by the Urban Task Force Report back in the late ‘90s. Towards an Urban Renaissance, a report commissioned by the Labour government and chaired by Lord Rogers, identified the need to revitalise neglected inner-city areas. It is sobering to consider that, 14 years later, these problems remain just as pressing. In Tottenham they have in fact intensified – clearly evident when you walk the streets and understand at first hand the effects of unemployment and urban deprivation on the local community.

In some regards the N17 Design Studio offers a new paradigm of an engaged, participatory and socially relevant architectural practice. The recent boom and bust cycles of urban speculation have often reduced architecture to just another material commodity, with design regarded merely as negotiable asset. So, has architecture per se has lost its moral compass? We believe it has, to a degree. Its fundamental connection with real people, real communities and real need has eroded. Just as the essentially democratic Modernist ideal sought to sweep away pre-war concepts of social hierarchy, offering better working and living conditions for all, so today we want to make the benefits of design available to everyone. Architecture should, once again, become a fundamental tool of social progress.

Initial research, courtesy of the ARB, concludes that there are currently 613 architects working in Camden and 642 in Islington, while N17 can only field 17. So we have compelling evidence that the profession isn’t exactly over-represented in the borough. Our aspiration is that the N17 Design Studio will become a tangible and legitimate part of a community trying rebuild and express itself as one of London's most diverse and truly authentic neighbourhoods. Certainly, judging by the enthusiastic response from staff volunteering to base themselves up in the new studio, this will also be an exciting new chapter for the practice and we look forward to the challenges that lie ahead.

Aidan Potter, design director, John McAslan + Partners

Natasha Manzaroli, HR and finance director, John McAslan + Partners